Tweaking Your Writing and Genre for Success

Last week I began talking about the wisdom in studying other authors’ works in order to nail a genre. This may or may not be something you are interested in, but in dealing with hundreds of clients each year who hire me to critique and edit their novels, I note that most of them 1) want to have successful sales with their books and 2) are targeting a specific genre. Some of my clients aren’t sure what genre they are writing in, or what audience they are writing for. As a result, those books are usually unfocused, awkwardly constructed, lacking clear style and voice.

I get that a lot of beginning writers are just finding their feet (or, rather, voice) and are often experimenting with writing to get some chops and see if they can just write a somewhat coherent novel. All well and good. But at some point, a writer needs to ask herself questions like “Just what do I want to do with this book?” and “Do I want to grow fans and make money from my writing?”

There is nothing wrong with writing something for fun or as an experiment or writing the story put on your heart that may be unconventional and cross genres and be hard to classify and hence difficult to sell (to an agent, publisher, or online as an indie author). A whole lot of unconventional, odd, weird, and “different” novels have sold well, so there’s no telling if your “unusual” book will sell or not. But odds are, books like that are going to be harder to sell well.

Adjusting Your Writing Style and Interests for Success

And, as I mentioned last week, it is not “selling your soul” to “adjust” what you are writing to target a specific genre or niche in order to sell well. Some of us writers actually have bills to pay like rent, utilities, college loans, car payments, and health insurance. Some of us would like to write at least a few books that make good money. If you can write books that sell and get those bills paid, you can then gift yourself with some free time to perhaps write those other books you want to write that aren’t in the big-selling genres.

That’s what I decided to do. All my novels sell to some extent. But the ones that fit in the best-selling genres on Amazon (and research has shown these are mystery/suspense, fantasy, paranormal/horror, and romance) sell way more. The novels I love to write are usually the oddball ones, with experimental structure and plots, that don’t fit into the clearly defined slots. But it’s my choice to spend my time expanding and exploring my creativity in those projects.

So, since I didn’t want to give up writing weird stuff but wanted to make some money, I decided to start writing novels that would fit the genres that sold well. I already was writing fantasy and sci-fi and suspense/mysteries. I took a few of those novels and tweaked them to fit the genres better or fit into a subgenre.

For example, I took my mostly “literary fiction” suspense novel A Thin Film of Lies (that my agent just couldn’t sell) and decided to make it a Christian/inspirational novel. I made a secondary character my protagonist, turning my female detective into the lead, and made her faith an important component of her character and work. I loved the result, and the book has seen some great success in that niche. And most importantly, I had a lot of fun rewriting this novel into one I could be proud of.

What Is “Selling Out” to You?

Did I sell out by targeting a specific subgenre of the suspense/mystery genre? No. Think about what “selling out” means to you. To me, it means doing something I don’t want to do or don’t believe in, in order to make a buck. If you can find a way to write the kinds of stories you love and structure them to fit into genres that sell well, I don’t feel that’s selling out. That’s being practical.

If you needed to get a job in the workforce and you had a certain skill set, and the best-paying jobs were in one specific field, say computer tech, and with a bit of training you could actually qualify for a job in that field, would you think you were selling out if you went for it? Maybe this would not be your dream job, but you knew you could enjoy it. And maybe in time you would be in a position to quit and do the job you really dreamed of doing.

Making the Needed Adjustment

A whole lot of people in the world make that kind of adjustment to have valuable skills in a marketplace. They train and study in order to qualify for that high-paying, steady job in the industries that are thriving and offer great benefits or a secure (if that’s possible) future for their employees. Similarly, a writer might look at those best-selling genres as the “industries” that are thriving. By writing novels that fit those genres, there is a higher chance of success in terms of sales. And the best way to get that “training” you need to fit that “job”? Study the works of successful novelists in those genres.

Understand that “learning from the masters” is a good thing. Just as aspiring painters set up their easels in museums like The Louvre and copy the works of famous painters, writers can learn some of the most important technique and structure by studying the novels of best-selling authors in the genre they want to write it. There is a huge difference between stealing someone else’s words and copying structure, as I explained last week.

Next week I’m going to talk more on ways to “deconstruct” a novel, to nail the genre. Of course, this may not be for everyone. But I believe many writers that want to make a living writing fiction can tailor their writing interests to fit into a genre and enjoy seeing those checks come in and those bills paid.

Any thoughts? What do you think is “selling out”? Do you feel it’s wrong for writers to change how and what they write in order to sell well?

Photo Credit: threephin via Compfight cc

Want to learn how to target genre to sell big?

flaming arrows and target 1000 wideWith 4,000+ ebooks published every day, you need every advantage to get discovered. Instead of writing a book and hoping it will somehow come up in the search results when a potential customer types in words in the search bar on Amazon, you’ll have the best chance at topping those lists if you write to genre.

What does that mean? It means identifying a very specific audience for a specific type of book. If you write a mystery and only list it as “mystery” in your description and keywords, you are competing against hundreds of thousands of other novels. But if you search out a niche genre that sells well and doesn’t have as much competition, you have an edge.

Part of targeting genre requires accurately identifying these successful niche genres. But another important factor is learning how to write to that genre. How to study other books that are selling big and emulate their structure and style, as well as use the best keywords in your promotions to get your book to fit in the slots right alongside those best sellers.

There’s a lot to know to do this well, but it’s not hard.

I floundered for decades trying to sell my many novels that didn’t specifically fit a niche genre. Then, when I decided to write to genre, I went from selling a few copies a month to thousands. With hardly any marketing and using a pen name no one heard of.

You can do it too!

But there’s a strategy to this. And steps you need to take to ensure your novel will have the best chance at discoverability.

I’ve made it easy for you!

It’s all here in my online course: Targeting Genre for Big Sales!

Don’t waste time trying to get your novels to sell. Be smart and treat your novels as products designed for specific consumers with specific needs. Once you learn to write to genre and target genre, it will be a game changer!

Enroll now and start gearing up to sell big. Isn’t it time you experienced the success you dream of? Your audience is waiting to discover your books!

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  1. For those who are writing literary novels, like me, I’m sure we’ve heard from many well-meaning people in our circle of friends and relatives, “Why don’t you write (fill in the blanks with a genre) and make a million bucks?” They almost always point to an acquaintance — a sister of a friend, or an aunt — who started writing romance novels and now is living the high life.

    I’m always polite to these people. I usually laugh off their suggestion. My attitude remains, write the book I want to write, and let the chips fall where they may.

    But I do appreciate your ideas, and they may influence me at that point when I tell myself that I’m ready to do something different — like, say, make a sale!

    Here’s a question for you, though. My book definitely has elements of mystery, suspense and thriller in it. In queries to agents, I don’t position it as a genre book. My intention was to write a very good book with strong characters, conflict, plot and themes. Do you believe I should spell it out explicitly that this book is a “suspenseful thriller,” or some such language? Or is it enough to let the query letter summarize the story, and let the agent decide for themselves whether it fits a certain genre?

    1. Hi Michael, you ask a good question. Ultimately, the real question is: Is the agent looking to acquire projects primarily to make money? Or is she looking for quality projects (that might perhaps be long shots?) or both? I’d venture to guess most agents pay attention to the potential sale value of a project, although it’s clear many have spend much time trying to sell novels that they “believe in” and that might be out of the easy-to-sell category. As regarding how you present your novel in your query: be honest. If you’ve tried to tailor your novel to fit a genre and has the kind of elements that will help it sell well, by all means–mention that in your query. It can’t hurt to emphasize the more marketable qualities of your manuscript in your query by saying how and why you think it will sell (for example, giving comparables to best-selling works by other authors).

  2. I loved your most recent article on “Tweaking Your Writing and Genre for Success.”

    In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with changing how and what you write in order to sell well. After all, how else are you going to pay the bills if writing is how you make your living? If you are embarrassed by the idea of writing in a certain genre then use a pen name.

    I feel that it is selling out to write only in the genre that is currently popular, and not write what is near to your heart. For instance, I absolutely love to write humorous fantasy. However, there is not a large market for that, so I also write action/adventure science fiction. I am currently working on a horror novel (Yes, I have read every Stephen King story out there.) When I have completed the horror novel, I will “reward” myself by writing another humorous fantasy story.

    Thank you so much for helping me become a better writer.

  3. This is more than apropos right now. The comment above adds to that.

    The novel I am working on is so multi-stranded that finding the closest ‘genre’ will be difficult but here’s the question. If you sense that to streamline a novel to make its or any genre more explicit ( and therefore sellable)you will simultaneously eradicate what is more important…is that selling out? It feels like it, but then so does writing a book unlikely to find readers without a fanfare. At a venerable age I cannot foresee the time to split these hairs! Nor learn to blow the necessary trumpet.

    1. Hi Philippa, if we keep in mind we are producing a commodity for a consumer, it helps to understand what that consumer expects and wants. When writing a specific genre, we need to adjust the writing style and tone to the genre, the reader’s expectations. We need to be able to correctly and aptly describe our novels to reach the target readers. Making a novel more upmarket, as the term is called, is practical and may require either extensive or minor rewriting to make it fit a market better. It’s up to you how important it is to sell well and build a reputation and name as an author. I don’t know what you feel is “important” in your story, but my bet is you would not lose that by adjusting your writing to better fit a genre. If you have a compelling concept and great characters and themes you are passionate about, unless what is important to you is obscure or esoteric writing style and structure, you won’t really have to give up anything of importance, IMO.

      1. Thank you Suzanne. In time I may need your more detailed opinion, because what I include IS esoteric, but not ‘other-worldly’ the esoteric ‘characters’ are both strong and all too human…their contribution to the plot critical to its central theme.

  4. Any aspiring writer who wants to succeed professionally owes it to him or herself to study the industry. The same can be said of any profession or craft. Ignorance about the rules and standards of the world you’re attempting to enter will just lead, inevitably, to head-banging-against-the-wall frustration.

    I’m not saying the publishing industry is perfect, but certain parts of it are structured that way because they work. If your goal is to make money from your writing, doesn’t it behoove you to study the best way to make that happen?

    All this to say, in the most roundabout way possible, I agree with you and think this was a smart way to go about it.

  5. I absolutely agree with your description of “selling out”. The point, to me, is the decision being an unconcious one.

    If you are watering down the story that you love just a bit, and you manage to tell yourself “that’s a better idea anyways”, then that is selling out. If you conciously put your decision about writing commercially into action, than it’s just that: a decision.

    On another note, I personally dislike genres for the very reason that they always lead back to generic writing and generic ideas. It seems once you pick a genre, every little book or TV show you ever saw in that genre will come back to haunt you and make your work look a little bit like they do… There are only so many ideas out there, and the blank mind will desperately hold onto anything it can find… so for me, one test to see how original a story is, would be to see how clearly it fits into a certain genre: The better it fits into its drawer, the less original it is.

    That’s not to say that genre stories can’t be good – of course, there are excellent ones out there.

  6. If the sole objective is to make money, then ‘sell out’ by all means. As for tweaking, it may happen that a given tweak improves the book – if so, go right ahead. It may even happen that a given tweak alters the book without making it noticeably better or worse in itself but better suited to the genre. If that is the case, then go ahead and tweak.

    As for genre books, I have noticed a tendency for certain authors to move into the crime area where they had not been before. I wonder why that is? In the cases I have in mind the motive is not to make money since they are doing very well already.

  7. Thanks for these posts on genre and the 12 pillars series! All are very helpful. 🙂

    What are your thoughts on “branding” oneself as an author in a particular genre?

    I’m working on my first novel, which is science fiction. I’m a fan of this genre and I’m confident my novel will fit the genre. But when I write short stories, a lot of them are more paranormal/horror. Say I get some of the stories published and then get the novel published, am I confusing my readers by switching genre?

    I think that the voice/style would still be mine, but I’m curious what your thoughts are for a beginning writer.

  8. I enjoyed your article very much, great insight.

    I have always wanted to write mysteries or at least one, but my tendency runs more to romance so that is where I focus my ideas. However I feel there is no such thing as selling out. When one has reached a pinnacle of success then it may be time to write what is closet to the heart or plot line of choice. Writers not only want to write, they want to be recognized and appreciated. Writing what sells is the first step, then comes the prize of writing what one wants to write and continuing to sell.
    I feel fortunate in being able to address one genre but in different variations. Just waiting for the royalty checks to come flooding in.

  9. I write Paranormal/Romance, Fantasy/Romance and Sci-Fi/Romance and love reading books in that genre. To me, selling out would be to write a book in a genre that I don’t really like or would normally find boring, like maybe a war story or legal thriller, just because I think it would sell better. My heart wouldn’t be in it and I would probably do a bad job of it anyway, so it wouldn’t even be worth trying.
    To change a few things to fit a genre, I think, is okay, as long as your story and message and all the important parts of the story are still there.

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